Wheels On Steel AND The Driving Boom Is Over

Conventional rail looks as if it has won the battle to provide the US with a high speed train service.

The Central Japan Railway Company is bidding for a contract to provide a Maglev – ultra high speed – service initially between Baltimore and Washington DC.

Ultimately it would like to see the 311 mph trains –which float above a single magnetic rail – ply between New York and Washington.

But thus far the Department of Transportation and Amtrak, which runs existing services on the route, remains sceptical despite hints that the Japanese Government will put up some of the money.

In the north east corridor, the line between Boston and Washington, the Americans have gone for conventional 220 mph trains, which will be good news for manufacturers like Siemens, which has already picked up a slice of the high speed market in America.

An announcement on who has won that contract will be made next year.

Siemens, the German manufacturer, has already picked up the contract build locomotives for the Illinois service, with the engines being built in Sacramento, California.

Nippon Sharyo has won the contract to build the passenger cars, with construction taking place in Illinois.

In California, the high speed rail authority has asked train manufacturers to express an interest in the work.

It has specified that it wants trains capable of running at more than 200 mph.

This has already attracted approaches from 10 companies including two from China, CSR, the country’s top locomotive maker and Tangshan Railway.

The Chinese have been carrying out extensive safety reviews following one of the worst accidents in the history of high speed rail, when 40 people were killed at Wenzhou in July 2011.


The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

The new report’s 30-year estimates predict even less rapid growth in driving, forecasting that total driving miles will increase only 0.75 percent annually from 2012 to 2042. With population growth estimated to average 0.7 percent each year, this leaves per-person driving miles essentially flat. “This represents a significant slowdown from the growth in total VMT experienced over the past 30 years, which averaged 2.08% annually,” says the report.

The expectation of VMT growth hinges on the expectation of rapid growth in freight travel. When looking only at cars and pickup trucks, as opposed to larger vehicles, the agency’s baseline expectation is for total driving miles to grow only 0.67 percent annually – slower than the projected population growth rate over 30 years. If so, then the average number of miles Americans travel in their commutes, taking recreational trips and running errands by car would stagnate in the decades ahead.

The study released by the Federal Highway Administration and finalized last May has not been publicized, and assumes that gas prices would decline significantly from their earlier peak.

The Smart State Transportation Initiative (with assistance from Frontier Group) reported earlier last year that the Department of Transportation had issued 61 driving forecasts in a row that overshot their mark. Until now, there had not been a major reconsideration of past methods, which have chiefly depended on aggregating forecasts issued by states that are seeking federal funding for highway expansion projects.

As a result of the decline in driving since 2004, Americans currently drive about half a trillion fewer miles per year than they would have if the post-War driving boom had continued. Some of the reduction in recent years may be due to possibilities afforded by new technology and the distinct preferences of the rising millennial generation — factors that are not included in any of the FHWA’s forecasts.

Some states, like Washington and Maryland, have begun to ratchet down their forecasts of future VMT.

Ideally, U.S. DOT would officially supplant its previous forecast and feature this important shift in press releases, blogs, speeches, and other communications. The shift should be a major focus of the department’s 30-year visioning process.

For U.S. DOT to embrace a future less dominated by driving, it first must recognize when change has occurred and that a different trajectory is possible. Quiet and incremental as the current changes may be, they represent a profound step in the right direction.


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3 thoughts on “Wheels On Steel AND The Driving Boom Is Over”

  1. One can only hope we actually do her high speed rail service in this country soon! That’s for posting this! I’d love to see some high speed rail up here in the Seattle-Portland-Spokane area.


  2. Yakima has a really cool trolley tourist system that operates during the summer. Check it out when you visit your son! My dentist (from Kent) is heavily involved.


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